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Elective procedures coming back? Here’s how health systems can recapture volumes

By Brian Wynne, Vice President and General Manager, NRC Health

In many communities across the country, COVID-19 cases are on the wane. Some states have taken the first tentative steps toward reopening their economies, and some health systems that stopped offering non-essential services have begun to offer them again.

On the road to recapturing elective-procedure volumes, however, health systems face two serious obstacles:

  1. The outbreak is slowing, but COVID-19 remains a constant presence in consumers’ minds. Would-be patients might hesitate to make a new surgical appointment if they fear contracting the virus at the medical facility.
  2. In the era of social distancing, health systems have far fewer points of contact with their patients, which means they have fewer channels available through which to engage and attract them.

Health systems will have to grapple with both of these issues in their bids to earn elective volumes. To help, here are some tactics healthcare leaders might consider.

Addressing present fears of COVID-19

According to NRC Health’s research, more than 60% of U.S. healthcare consumers believe that visiting any provider puts them at elevated risk of contracting the coronavirus. That’s not likely to change anytime soon, and these consumers are fearful of visiting a primary-care provider—let alone going under a surgeon’s knife. In the face of these understandable anxieties, how can health systems reassure communities that their facilities are safe?

Two tactics are essential.

A concerted communications effort will be an important first step. Organizations should share the special measures they’ve taken to ensure a safe, orderly, and hygienic environment at their facilities.

NRC Health’s research shows that the delivery of these messages may be nearly as important as the content. A scattershot approach to communication may not bring health systems their desired results. Instead, a data-based investigation of consumer communication preferences should help health systems hone their strategies. Look to consumer-data resources like NRC Health’s Market Insights for answers on appropriate messaging content, modality, and frequency.

This, however, is only a preliminary measure. Communicating a facility’s safety practices might be reassuring, but that may not be enough to motivate behavior change. For that, consumers will want to hear from other consumers.

Publishing verified patient ratings (via, for example, NRC Health’s Transparency solution) can help. According to NRC Health’s data, 94.4% of consumers rely on ratings and reviews from other consumers to guide their healthcare decisions. Health systems that regularly publish these reviews, then, will enjoy a significant advantage over their competitors that don’t.

Accordingly, the recency of ratings and reviews will prove essential. Potential patients want to see up-to-date comments in order to get an accurate picture of the state of care: 66.1% of consumers believe that reviews older than 18 months should not be trusted. Recent, firsthand testimonials from verified patients are as persuasive as internally managed communications efforts, if not more so.

A starker competitive landscape

The coronavirus has subdued many areas of the economy. But for health systems, a necessarily narrowed market has created revenue strain due to significantly reduced patient volumes. Once the worst of COVID-19 has passed, provider competition for volumes will be fast and fierce.

At the same time, organizations now have fewer tools with which to compete. Social-distancing protocols have drastically reduced their points of contact with their customers. How can an organization differentiate its services in a world of consumer uncertainty and social isolation?

Health systems should maximize the benefits they gain from the one domain that the coronavirus hasn’t diminished: online search.

Search Engine Optimization (SEO), already an important consideration before the pandemic, should now rise to the top of providers’ marketing priorities. At a time when consumers are almost exclusively turning to the internet for guidance, organizations must ensure that they stake a prominent and authoritative place in consumers’ online search habits.

Publishing patient comments is an essential part of getting top billing on search-engine results pages: 80% of all web searches happen through Google, and Google’s priorities are to serve searchers with fresh, relevant content. By publishing patient comments, health systems effectively enlist patients as content writers, giving them a constant stream of hyper-relevant material to post on their websites. It’s exactly the kind of content that Google rewards and consumers seek.

OrthoNebraska, a surgical provider in the Omaha area, discovered this firsthand. Publishing patient comments through NRC Health’s Transparency solution had a tremendous impact on the organization’s SEO—and, consequently, on traffic to their domains. Unique visitors to their sites increased by 21% in just six months, and online appointment bookings went up by 49% in the same period.

And OrthoNebraska’s success isn’t an anomaly. LCMC Health, a large health system in Louisiana, also wanted to take their organization into the digital age. To bolster their brand’s digital presence, and to earn trust from their patients, LCMC Health decided to publish provider ratings on their website. Today, they continue to see success when it comes to attracting customers with patient feedback; Transparency Physician Champion and LCMC Health provider Dr. Christopher Lege credits the published reviews for the organization’s increased patient volume. “As a physician, I am aware that patients are choosing a provider based on the information online,” he says. “I’ve even had new patients come to me as a result of the reviews they’ve read.”

In the post-coronavirus market environment—one that will be dominated by digital—every organization should invest in improving organic SEO.

Smart steps after COVID-19

The pandemic has sharpened the need for a refined approach to recapturing elective volumes. Organizations cannot afford wasted steps in a post-coronavirus marketplace—the margin for error will be perilously thin. But a smart strategy, informed by robust data and grounded in open communication, will carry the day with consumers.